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This is precisely why assistance for homeless students is federally mandated, says David Delgado, youth advocate for the local nonprofit Peace for the Streets by Kids from the Streets (PSKS). Delgado, who was homeless himself from age 19 to 24, calls education level and employment status the two strongest predictors of long-term stability. Unemployed, uneducated kids are not set up for success later in life, but earning a high school diploma and landing a job are hard to do when you’re homeless.
“When you’re living in crisis, planning even two days ahead can be difficult,” says Delgado. “When young people go to school and take classes they start to think about their own future.”
The keystone guarantee for students under the Mckinny-Vento Act — the promise that liaisons spend a great deal of their time protecting — is a student’s right to attend his or her “school or origin.” No matter what. A newly homeless family will often be forced to find shelter far from their home. But students who experience this kind of dislocation have the right, under McKinney-Vento, to stay enrolled in the school they attended before they became homeless. That right includes free transportation to and from their original school. These rights are guaranteed regardless of where the students are living, even if they can’t provide a permanent address.
Transportation is a huge challenge, and the strategies liaisons use to comply with the McKinney-Vento transportation provision differ dramatically. Each district has a personalized transportation program that gets kids to and from campus. In Bellevue, for example, Betty Takahashi uses school buses for homeless students who are still in the district. For those who have moved elsewhere, she relies on a combination of ORCA cards (for the older kids) and taxis.
Dennis Grad doubles as the transportation director for the Auburn school district. (Liaisons often wear several hats.) Vintage bus posters decorate the walls of his office (left). Grad created an entirely in-house transit system in Auburn. Private drivers, employed by the school district, pick up every homeless student, even those living as far away as Lakewood. “Sometimes these kids are on the bus for up to an hour," says Grad, "but that’s what we’ve got to do.”
Transportation, he adds, is “the biggest hurdle” when it comes to keeping displaced kids connected to school. The need for transport is one symptom of a larger problem facing school liaisons, as well as advocates at local nonprofits: the lack of local resources for homeless people, specifically housing. Often, youth and families are forced out of their school district when they lose their homes because the only shelters available are located elsewhere.
The need for more emergency shelters and affordable housing programs, both in the greater Seattle area and in Washington as a whole, is well-documented. Increasing shelter was a key fixture of the 10-year Plan to End Homelessness in King County, which was written back in 2005.
The authors of the 2005 plan predicted that homelessness would be “virtually ended” by the close of 2014. Instead, the state’s education liaisons serve 8,000 more homeless students today than they did back in the 2007-08 school year: 27,000 compared to less than 19,000. Things “just don’t seem to be getting better,” says Betty Takahashi.
In a 2013 article published in the Seattle Journal for Social Justice, Courtney Lauren Anderson argues that it’s essential to think about housing issues and educational issues in tandem. A coordinated strategy “between teachers in schools and education professionals outside of schools” is the best way to create a stable academic environment for homeless kids. Ideally, the education professionals would work in concert with shelters and affordable housing facilities so that youth have resources at their disposal both on and off campus.
Beyond the basics of identifying homeless kids, getting them to school and helping them secure shelter and other basic needs, public officials and independent education advocates empasize raising awareness about homeless youth and battling the prejudice against them.
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